The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s point person on homeland security warned that border vigilance against Chinese pork imports — even a visitor bringing back a pack of infected jerky — is crucial to keep a pathogen from causing economic ruin here in America.
“African swine fever has the potential to completely topple pork markets in the U.S. if it ever showed up here,” David Stiefel, a national security policy analyst in the USDA’s Office of Homeland Security and lead USDA author on last year’s National Biodefense Strategy, told the Biodefense World Summit in Bethesda, Md., on Tuesday.
The hemorrhagic virus, which one researcher at the conference dubbed “Ebola for pigs,” cannot be spread to humans but China, which has been battling a swine fever outbreak since August, has had to cull hundreds of thousands of pigs as pork prices jumped 18 percent and inflation rose to a 15-month high.
Stiefel noted that the virus can survive up to 180 days in low-temperature-cured jerky. The USDA is working with the intelligence community to track where swine fever cases are increasing; at points of entry, an increased Customs and Border Protection “Beagle Brigade” trained to sniff out food material is doing its part to keep travelers from bringing in infected pork.
Trying to keep the fever off U.S. shores isn’t easy: Stiefel cited the recent interception of a container ship from China that was supposed to be carrying auto parts but instead was full of pork products.
This “creates huge risk for the U.S. and global community,” he said.
With more than 100,000 employees, the USDA’s Office of Homeland Security is small by comparison with fewer than 60 staffers and three people working full-time on homeland security policy. Homeland Security Presidential Directive 9, issued by President George W. Bush in 2004, allowed the USDA to have its defensive-posture intel shop — including biosurveillance, foreign animal disease investigations, interagency coordination, intelligence support, outbreak assistance, and criminal epidemiological investigations.
The Defense Against Agroterrorism Working Group (DAAWG), with 36 chartered members, makes sure channels of communication, cooperation and collaboration are open to confront any deliberate act or threat to food or agriculture intended to intimidate, coerce or affect health, influence governments or inflict economic losses. The Title 50 chair is the National Counterterrorism Center, and the non-Title 50 chair is the Department of Homeland Security’s Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office.
But the challenges are daunting. As the agency is tasked with ensuring food security and supply resiliency for a growing population, the USDA must track, intercept, prevent and respond to potentially devastating pathogens.
“It’s a lot easier to infect animals and plants because fewer people are watching,” Stiefel said, adding that “this is something that could be attacked intentionally or unintentionally.”
Sixty-one percent of diseases that affect humans have a zoonotic origin, and zoonotic diseases account for 70 percent of emerging diseases.
The 2015 outbreak of Asian highly pathogenic avian influenza in the United States cost more than $800 million; the agriculture sector accounts for 5.5 percent of U.S. gross domestic product.
Containing agricultural disease can include enforcement measures that require law enforcement assistance; a memorandum of understanding with the FBI means that agents can secure the area around a potential disease investigation, then vets or other USDA personnel can go in and clear the scene — such as when an outbreak of virulent Newcastle disease was traced back to fighting cocks on Southern California gang turf.
Stiefel stressed that a particular concern of the USDA is multiple small-scale attacks with widespread impact, such as 10 different episodes in 10 different states.
“It would be a very difficult situation if a lot of small attacks looked natural,” he said.